but it smells as fine as any canine
The solution to controlling the coronavirus could be staring us in the face every time we lock eyes with a dog. Medical Detection Dogs is a charity that supplies dogs to sniff out the tell-tale signs of ailments including cancer, type 1 diabetes, Parkinson’s disease and malaria. They are currently experimenting with Covid-19 detection. Great idea; but wouldn’t it be even better if we used the noses without the dogs?
Reading about the research initiative in a Sunday supplement prompted the contemplation that, technologically speaking, smell is a neglected sense. We have made seeing machines that can peer at atoms and find planets in galaxies far, far away and long, long ago. We turn ultrasound into pictures to look inside our bodies, and we have microphones that can listen at range, like a rife in reverse, and others that can hear under water, beneath the bark of trees, and pick up vibrations from deep within our planet. The sense of smell has been replicated, developed and harnessed to a much lower degree, it seems to me. We could be missing a canny trick.
Dogs can’t see into distant planetary systems, or into the space between our ears, but it is estimated that they can smell between 10,000 and 100,000 times better than humans. According to Professor James Logan of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, while we can detect a spoonful of sugar in a cup of tea, a dog can detect the same amount in two Olympic swimming pools. We need to catch up.
We are already familiar with security canines in airports. They can sniff out explosives and drugs. The thinking is that they could check out those checking in, and wag a warning at even the asymptomatic Covid-19 couriers. Great; but dogs need to be trained, housed, fed, exercised, and have their own health needs met. They also need to sleep. What we need are dog-less snouts. Surely, we can make something that can be held in the hand (or on the end of a two-metre pole), sniff 24/7 and require just a few milliamps of electricity? If it is as good as a dog, the testing can happen in just half a second.
There are various projects in progress to develop artificial noses. Imagine if such instruments were as prevalent as the temperature guns that now target us in all kinds of places. A high temperature is a symptom of many conditions. Dogs know a specific disease when they scent it. If we had devices that did the same, they would not just be at airports, they’d be in every hospital, health centre, school and care home. What a difference that would make to everyone’s safety.
It must be possible to make such equipment and it would surely not be difficult to subsequently recalibrate the software when new infections came along. Come on engineers. Sort out your snouts.
Loss of smell is a symptom of Covid-19. Electronic sniffing could be a means of snuffing it out.
 This post was triggered by Tim Lewis’ feature in the Observer magazine supplement 21 June 2020.
A nose by any other name would smell . . .
Take a ride to Elizabethan England, to where the world’s most famous bard lost his boyhood.
Will rubbed the ache from his eyes. He could remember nothing of the night. The mattress beneath him was coarse and sank sharp shards into his naked back. The sunlight seared across the ceiling rebounding off the lime wash. There were no familiar scents in the air, but the odours he detected troubled him. One was like sweat, but was not sweat, at least not his sweat. Another was a flavour he recognised but could not name.
From Will at the Tower, a novel about Shakespeare’s secret seventeenth year, available as an eBook and as a paperback :